The Unbearable Levity of Digital Monopolies

By Rosa Miriam Elizalde on February 17, 2021

The closure of Trump’s accounts comes too late and does not have the smell of carnations, but of another discretionary practice of private Internet monopolies, which act according to the winds blowing in Washington.

Trump’s expulsion from the paradise of social media platforms, as a result of the assault on the Capitol on January 6, has been presented as a triumph for the Democrats and millions of citizens of the world fed up with the president’s bravado, but dozens of analysts have expressed concern about the joint decision of these private companies to block their users at their discretion, whether it is a president or any other account holder. They have years of monopolistic practices and a huge stomach for tolerating all the hatred in the world and multiplying the extreme right into all corners.

Disinformation experts and civil rights advocates have long warned about the rise of violent rhetoric on social media sites and the role of US politicians in psychological warfare operations, such as those unleashed in Britain in the days of Brexit; in the Brazil that elected Jair Bolsonaro as president; or in the United States during Donald Trump’s so-called permanent campaign for the presidency, which began in 2016 and has not yet ended. The common denominator of these three processes has a name, Steve Bannon, former US Navy officer and guru of the so-called global “alternative right”.

Before winning the presidency, Trump used Twitter to amplify his racist campaign by falsely claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. As president, he shared hateful messages targeting Muslims and posted content disparaging Mexicans and Central Americans, a clear violation of the platform’s policies. In June 2020 he retweeted to his tens of millions of followers a video in which an acolyte shouted “White Power!” He encouraged violence against Black Lives Matter protests in a message shared on multiple platforms that included the phrase, “when the looting starts, let the shooting begin”.

The British newspaper The Guardian published in December 2019 an extensive investigation showing that Facebook and YouTube algorithms have acted as arbiters of American politics for years. Beyond the ideological bias, these giants have imposed a technological bias: their algorithms favor scandalous content, as it is shared more and captures more of the audience, something that gives wings to far-right conspiracies and political lynchings. On January 31, The Wall Street Journal uncovered internal Facebook messages that reveal that the company’s executives are fully aware that their business model “exploits the social divide” around the world.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which used Facebook user data to induce electoral behavior, and the genocide in Myanmar in 2018, following a deliberate hate campaign on this platform, are ghosts that have haunted the blue-thumbed company in recent years. However, the allegations have had no major regulatory impact and the multinational technology company’s revenues continue to reach dizzying figures: they increased by 22% in 2020 with 85,965 million dollars, while net profits increased by 58% more than in 2019 by registering 29,146 million dollars. They have never had more users than now: 2.8 billion (12% more than last year), which means that more than a third of humanity is connected to Facebook.

“Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are trying to don the mantle of champions of free speech, but the truth is that they are businesses, driven by quarterly results and Wall Street’s insatiable desire for ever-increasing sales and profits,” New York Times editorialist Greg Bensinger said in January.

There are many questions at stake, besides the certainty that these companies have their own profits as their main horizon. What will it take for these companies to take meaningful action against Trump-like behavior in other parts of the world? When will they act to protect all their users inside and outside the United States? What will they do to prevent powerful political groups and intelligence forces from using the platforms to misinform, manipulate and silence opinions inconvenient to Washington?

The discretion of the platforms

Shortly after Twitter blocked Trump, a network of hundreds of fake accounts manipulated the social conversation about Ecuador’s elections, which took place on Sunday  February 7. A study by 13 Ecuadorian and Spanish researchers detected the artificial amplification of the speech of banker Guillermo Lasso, presidential candidate, while criticizing his left-wing opponent, Andrés Arauz.

According to research published by the Technical University of Manabí and the Rey Juan Carlos University and hosted on the website of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences, astroturfing techniques were used, which consists of spreading a message through social networks to create a false current of opinion by passing it off as spontaneous and popular.  They used accounts with images stolen from other platforms and pornographic portals, as well as fake photographs created with artificial intelligence systems, as happened in November 2019 during the coup d’état against President Evo Morales.

Many of the accounts against Arauz during the recent election in Ecuador were created in January, while others “were recycled from other countries or had a commercial use such as broadcasting reality TV content”, according to the study. The main people involved in these disinformation strategies have not been penalized by Twitter, despite the obvious link to major right-wing political actors and complaints from users and researchers. The “Vamos Guillermo” campaign, which orchestrated the wave of attacks on Twitter, invested more than $11,000 on Facebook to promote pro-Lasso videos and propaganda among hundreds of thousands of users.

However, this laxity does not apply equally to all. During the Trump administration, Twitter frequently danced to the tune of the State Department’s provisions in its declared war against Cuba. On May 12, 2020, the platform blocked 526 profiles run from the island, which shared information from a community known as #DeZurdaTeam. It did not explain its decision to the users who saw their accounts abruptly cancelled, but the following day, on May 13, none other than Michael Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, who convened a briefing with journalists and invited Lea Gabrielle, Director of the Global Engagement Center (GEC), also from the State Department.

While Twitter kept quiet about why it had blocked Cubans, US officials told the press that the State Department had identified “more than four dozen Cuban accounts” – the government agency, not the private supercompany!

In this meeting, which was enthusiastically publicized by the US embassy in Havana, the State Department’s main lines of action with respect to countries they identified as “malign actors”: Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba – were expressed. They explained the GEC’s policy of “hiring local influencers and journalists” who are dedicated to “exposing and countering disinformation”. In tandem, ‘the State Department has developed partnerships with key local communicators who have the reach and resonance with target audiences’.

Almost two months later, on July 2, The Miami Herald published the progress of this strategy against the island, presenting the website, managed from Florida, which has “the technical skills promoted by the State Department” to identify fake accounts or inauthentic behavior from Cuba.

Lea Gabrielle commented to the Herald on the advances in the policy presented in May and openly praised the State Department’s work with technology companies, which monitor the Cuban network, “after detecting attempts to manipulate the platforms”.

“We have an ongoing dialogue with technology companies and are working with them to share our thoughts on attempts by state and non-state actors to leverage their platforms to spread disinformation and propaganda,” Lea Gabrielle added to the Miami Herald.

In all those months, Twitter made no comment on these statements by the State Department that demonstrate the federal coordination and direction of operations against Cuba from that platform, but -oh, surprise! – on October 8, 2020 it published the report on the 526 accounts blocked in May. It took five months to respond to the censored Cuban users and it did so through a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory of Stanford University in California, to which it provided all the historical data on the “offenders”. It did not limit itself to the moment when the alleged violation of the platform’s policy took place, but made available to the researchers of this private US university all the activity of Cuban nationals from 2010 to May 2020, without explaining what legality underlies the delivery to third parties of the information of hundreds of people who do not live in the United States or are not governed by its laws.

Unlike the researchers who documented the network operations against Evo Morales and Andrés Arauz, the Stanford University Observatory found no evidence of the use of automated systems (bots) on the Cuban accounts. However, some details of this story that intertwines the State Department, Twitter and the Californian university are particularly striking:

1) The sample of the Stanford research (526 accounts or more than 4 dozen, as Gabrielle said) was known since the beginning of May by the State Department, probably before Twitter blocked them. Lea Gabrielle talks about it 24 hours after the platform deactivated the Cuban accounts, without Twitter publicly notifying why it did so, let alone disclosing the number of profiles deleted.

2) Twitter presented this strike on the Cuban network as a routine activity to detect “state-backed information operations”, and described the blocking of accounts dedicated to the propaganda of four other governments in addition to Cuba (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Russia).  On the same day, Facebook announced that it had taken down a far-right network linked to the conservative group Turning Point USA. The agencies headlined “Facebook and Twitter dismantle fake networks in the US and Cuba”

3) Neither Twitter nor Stanford University acknowledged that these “state-linked information operations” executed orders from US government agencies to block the Cuban accounts, despite previous statements by two senior State Department officials tacitly claiming responsibility for the operation. Twitter’s October 8 statement only mentions this subordination when describing the deleted Russian accounts. It states that, in this case, the platform “has worked collaboratively with industry peers and the FBI”.

4) The sources used by Stanford to incriminate the Cuban government in a cybertroop operation on Twitter come from institutions that receive public funding from US federal agencies, such as Freedom House and Cubanet. Also, from the Atlantic Council, a think tank that poorly disguises its links to the US government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and which coordinates the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a kind of transnational internet police. Also, the Open Observatory of Network Interference, based in Italy and also linked to the Atlantic Council.

5) Stanford claimed that the behavior of the blocked Cuban accounts “indicates that users may be following patterns in Venezuela that have been documented by other researchers”. The “researchers” he refers to are also from the Atlantic Council, whose subservience to the most conservative policies in the US has been documented for decades. It threatens, like the State Department, to keep an eye on the Cuban Twitter network: “As Cubans’ use of social media continues to grow and connectivity increases, it will be interesting to keep an eye on coordinated campaigns aimed at promoting a sense of nationalism and unity among Cubans in the face of ‘Yankee imperialism’.

6) As Twitter has systematically done, the investigation ignored evidence of cyber-troops organized against the Cuban government from intoxication and disinformation laboratories in the United States, equipped with state-of-the-art technology, hundreds of sites for network contamination and digital traps whose purpose is to steal personal data in order to manipulate Cubans.

The American researcher Shoshana Zuboff, author of a fundamental book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, said about the attack on Capitol Hill and the decisions made by the platforms: “There is a coup that we are not talking about” and she refers to the infinite capacity of these private companies to decide who has the right to exist on the web and who does not, “even though they were not elected to govern us”. This is the essence of the epistemic coup,” he adds. They claim the authority to decide what is known by whom, they claim ownership rights over our personal information, and they have the power to control critical information systems and infrastructures”.

Of course, it is not just any power, but one that moves in the direction the wind blows from Washington. When asked how Facebook would adapt to a political shift to a possible Biden administration, a company spokesman, Nick Clegg, replied: “We will adapt to the environment in which we are operating”. And so it did. On January 7, when it became clear that the Democrats would control the Senate, the platforms indefinitely blocked Trump’s account.

Source: Network In Defense of Humanity, translation Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau